Forgetting and Remembering Your First Language

I recently spoke Russian for multiple days for the first time in more than a decade. It did not go smoothly.

Leaving Saint Petersburg for Moscow recently, I needed to determine whether our train tickets were for an assigned seat in a specific car, or if it was open seating. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the word for “assigned,” or even a close approximation for “open seating.”

“Hello, can I sit where I want?” I asked the attendant standing outside the train in Russian.

Nyet,” he answered. No.

“Ah … is there a difference, where I sit?” I continued.

Da.”

“Umm … I’m going to sit here?” I said, pointing at the car directly behind him. 

Nyet,” he answered, and then directed me to a location three cars back, where I eventually found our assigned seat.

The above exchange should have been easier for someone whose first language was, in fact, Russian.

And sure, I still “speak” it. That is, I probably speak it better than you do—unless you, too, are Russian. But really, saying I "speak" it is the same sort of linguistic hubris that we Americans exhibit once we’ve managed to cobble together just a few foreign words—like putting “francophone” in your Twitter bio as soon as you can order a croissant and ask where the bathroom is. 

I can maneuver my way around most Russian situations. Before long, though, I'll come across some roadblock—like, say, "roadblock"—try to translate it literally from English—road block ... daroga kvartal?— fail, and have to admit to myself and the Russians around me that I'm only semifluent at best. (Roadblock, by the way, is dorozhnoye zagrazhdeniye.)

Earlier this month I returned to Russia for the first time in 25 years. In 1989 my parents packed two suitcases, renounced their Soviet citizenship, and took me to Leningrad’s Pulkovo Airport for my first plane ride. We were bound, eventually, for a new life in the U.S.

Why go back now? For a journalist, it's certainly an interesting time to be in Russia. My grandma, though perfectly healthy, is 83 and “waiting for death,” as she likes to remind us. Plus, you know how Russians love melodrama: There’s something uniquely momentous about seeing the same city at two points in time, exactly a quarter-century apart.

The author in the USSR, before she forgot Russian

I did speak Russian really well, once. By all accounts, as a toddler I was the Stalin of the playground, issuing directives to my tiny comrades as my grandma watched, pleased, from a nearby bench. Shortly after we immigrated, in my Texas preschool, I would patiently implore my overseers to please explain in Russian their command to “sit Indian style.”

The fact that I had learned the language early might be the only reason I remember any of it at all. It’s easier for kids to learn languages because their brains are more plastic—they have a great number of connections between neurons. People who begin learning a language as children usually reach a higher level of proficiency than those who start as adults.

But I haven’t spoken Russian with any regularity since I was in my early teens, when, tired of middle-school ostracism, I decided to become as Americanized as possible. Many psychologists think that we forget languages, and other things, because of "disuse"—the memories that we don’t try to recall very frequently become more deeply buried over time. Which explains why, even though you once aced your French midterm, you can no longer remember how to declare that you would like to go parasailing with Jean-Claude this weekend. 

Other studies have shown that forgetting a native language might be an adaptive strategy that helps us learn a second one. In a 2007 study, "native English speakers who had completed at least one year of college-level Spanish were asked to repeatedly name objects in Spanish. The more the students were asked to repeat the Spanish words, the more difficulty they had generating the corresponding English labels for the objects." That is to say, the better I became at English, the more my brain suppressed the Russian inside me.

This trip would be the first time I spoke exclusively Russian for multiple days, or spoke the language at length to people who aren't related to me. Before I left, I tried to find comfort in the fact that though my speech is now shaky, I understand Russian perfectly, which is true, and by telling myself that “everyone there speaks English these days.” That part is false.

I arrived at Pulkovo Airport two weeks ago with my boyfriend Rich, who is as American as an apple pie baked into the shape of a baseball and then fired out of a concealed handgun. He and I waltzed through passport check with nary a raised eyebrow from the control officers. I ordered us a cab to the hotel entirely in Russian, and as a result was feeling pretty much like the Queen of Russia. (Sorry, tsaritsa.)

I can break down the ensuing things that went wrong into roughly three Rumsfeldian categories: 

1) Words I did not know that I did not know.

2) Words I knew I did not know, and would never remember.

3) Words I did not know, and would later remember, but it wouldn’t matter anyway.

Research shows that trying to remember words in a foreign language improves brain function because it exercises things like task-switching and working memory. I guess the silver lining of what I experienced is that I’m now probably 800 percent smarter.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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